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Mosaics of St Paul's MARCH 2016

Exquisite works of art in one of Britain's best known cathedrals

As you enter St Paul’s cathedral, look closely.

It’s tempting not to – it gets busy at the weekends – and, when you’re surrounded by swarms of iPhone-wielding tourists all intent on climbing as high as possible, you want to keep your eyes on the people around you. 

But look closely. And, whether you’re lucky enough to be there in the blessed silence of early morning or being elbowed by fellow tourists, you will be treated to the same glorious vision. 

The mosaics have not always been there. The cathedral was built in 1711 – an austere, striking monument to the power of God in the near-Puritan style of the eighteenth century. It’s no wonder that Christopher Wren, the architect, shunned ornate design. Glitzy, glistening churches were seen as dangerously Catholic: subversive, ungodly and – worst of all – French. The clear, clean space was considered to be the perfect way to represent good, honest, English faith. God’s grace could fill it up to the brim, without any interference from human aesthetics. 

But by the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes were changing. Papism was no longer viewed as a foreign taint, and worshippers longed for a little more life in their religious buildings. Even Queen Victoria lamented that St Paul’s was ‘dull, cold, dreary and dingy’. 

With a gauntlet tossed down by the monarch, the premier artists of the time responded – volunteering their services to ‘humanise’ the cathedral. William Blake Richmond designed a series of mosaics – the ones you see all around you today. Look closer. Look as close as you possibly can. Thousands upon thousands of tiny tiles, known as tesserae, sit next to each other in the world’s most beautiful jigsaw, forming Biblical stories, saints and sinners and angels, prophets and Evangelists and heroes, Bible quotes and readings. Eve, with her mane of flame-red hair, is attended to by the animals she has helped name; a lioness dips her head to Adam’s foot in a potent image of Man’s dominion over the natural world. The creation of the animals of the land, water and air is portrayed in striking, flawless colour – greens and blues and golds and reds, the bright feathers of a peacock and the ridges of a crocodile’s hide. 

Keep looking. Stories are told in the mosaics: a consoling, gentle-eyed Gabriel reaches out to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will bear a son, and that she should not fear the will of God. Orpheus strums his lyre: lovelorn and mourning for Eurydice, who is consigned to the murk of the Underworld. A pointed-faced devil reaches out for Eve, murmuring temptation to her. 

Scala’s Mosaic’s of St Paul’s Cathedral tells the tale of the mosaics from their conception to realisation, exploring the techniques that were used to transform an artist’s vision to stunning reality. It features beautiful new photography, and is in itself a tiny work of art.